First look: Photos for OS X brings easier navigation and more powerful editing

Apple's iPhoto and Aperture are not long for this world. See what will replace them in this first look at the beta of Photos for the Mac.

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Last June, Apple announced that it would stop development of its Aperture and iPhoto apps and offer a single photo app in their place—Photos for OS X. Today, developers are getting their first glimpse of Photos, as it’s bundled with the beta version of OS X 10.10.3.

Providing many of the features found in its mobile sibling, the Yosemite-only Photos for OS X offers an interface less cluttered than iPhoto, improved navigation, simpler yet more powerful editing tools, the ability to sync all your images to iCloud (though it doesn’t require you to), and new options for creating books, cards, slideshows, calendars, and prints. I’ve had the opportunity to take an early look at Photos, and this is what I’ve found.

The look

Photos has inherited some design elements from Apple’s latest operating system as well as from iOS’s Photos app. For example, there’s a measure of transparency near the top of the window, reflecting the images behind it rather than the desktop. Toolbar items bear Yosemite’s thinner design, and, like iTunes 12, you’ll find buttons that provide you with different avenues for viewing your content—Photos, Shared, Albums, and Projects. (An Import button also appears when you’ve connected a compatible camera, mobile device, or media card.) They shake out this way.

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Photos interface follows Yosemite's path of clean, minimal design,

Photos: As with Photos for iOS, you can see your images and movies organized in Years, Collections, and Moments views. In the highest level Years view you find very tiny images all created within a particular year. Click and hold on a thumbnail and you see a larger thumbnail. Click and drag and you can scrub through these thumbnails to locate the image you’re after.

Click within one of the years and you’re taken down a layer to Collections view, which comprises images captured during a particular time and in a specific place. This is akin to iPhoto’s Events view, where you might find all the images from your camping trip.

Click again and you’re taken to the Moments view—all the images you captured during your afternoon atop Half Dome, for instance. If you have a Mac with a trackpad you can navigate even more easily. To dig down from Year view, just stretch two fingers on the trackpad. Stretch again to move to the Moments view. To move back up the hierarchy, pinch.

If you click the place name that appears near the top-left of the window you’re taken to a map that displays thumbnails along with the number of images associated with that location—all the images you’ve taken in Central Park, for example.

Shared: This serves a purpose similar to iPhoto’s Shared entry. After enabling iCloud Photo Sharing you’ll see the photo streams you’re sharing as well as any streams others have chosen to share with you. Unlike with iPhoto’s shared albums, Photos presents shared images in a much more elegant way—similar to something you might see on a well-designed photo sharing site.

Albums: As its name implies, click Albums and you find any albums you’ve created. But there’s more to it than that. Unlike with iPhoto, Photos offers some preconfigured albums that appear in a row near the top of the window. These are All Photos, Faces, Last Import, Favorites, Panoramas, Videos, Slo-mo, Time-lapse, and Bursts—it’s not difficult to see the strong connection between these libraries and the kind of images you can capture with your iOS device. Just double-click on an album to see its contents.

photos albums

Photos gathers images and movies of particular types at the top of the Albums view.

Projects: Should you have forgotten, projects are what Apple calls slideshows, books, cards, and calendars. When you create such a project you’ll find it here. To work on an existing project, just double-click on it.

Import: Similar to iPhoto, when you connect a camera, iOS device, or media card/reader an Import button will appear. Click it and you can choose to import all new items on the connected device/media or just those images you select. If you have more than one device connected—your iPhone and an SD card, for example—you pick the source you desire from a pop-up menu and then import the images and/or compatible movies it contains.

photos import

You can import media from cameras, connected iOS devices, and media just as you did with iPhoto.

If you prefer navigating your media as you did with iPhoto, that option exists in the form of Photos’ Sidebar (which you invoke by choosing View > Show Sidebar or by pressing Command-Option-S). Do so and you see headings for Photos, Import, Albums (which contains the preconfigured albums I mentioned earlier as well as smart albums), and Projects. The navigation buttons in the toolbar disappear when you expose the sidebar.

Viewing images

To view a photo at a larger size, just double-click on it. When you do this you have the opportunity to mark it as a favorite (by clicking a Favorite button in the toolbar). Photos has dispensed with star ratings, however. Now you simply choose to mark an image as a favorite or not.

info window

You add keywords and descriptions as well as view EXIF and location data in the Info window.

When viewing a single image you can get and edit information about it. Just click the Info button and a window appears where you can add a title, view some EXIF data, see the image’s location if it has been geotagged, add keywords, and add the identity of faces within the image. You can select multiple images, press Command-I to produce the Info window, and add keywords that apply to each selected image.

You can also click a Plus button to add your image to an album, smart album, or project. And by clicking on the Share menu you can send that image elsewhere—to iCloud Photo Sharing, Mail, Messages, AirDrop, Twitter, Facebook, and other services available from within the Share Menu via Yosemite’s Extensions system preference.

Editing your images

Photos, like the iOS version, presents editing as a collection of tasks. When you view an image and then click Edit in Photos’ top-right corner you’re presented with a list of tools—Enhance, Rotate, Crop, Filters, Adjust, and Retouch. Enhance does what it did before—takes a guess at what might look good and applies those changes. Rotate does exactly that in 90-degree increments. Filters offers up eight tasteful filters: Mono, Tonal, Noir, Fade, Chrome, Process, Transfer, and Instant. And you use Retouch to remove spots and blemishes (including sensor dust) with a resizable tool. Crop and, particularly, Adjust need more explanation.

Crop not only lets you cut away unwanted material by dragging corners and borders, but provides a wheel similar to the one in Photos for iOS that you use to straighten your image to a grid. Or, if you like, you can simply click an Auto button and Photos will calculate the horizon line and straighten and crop the image for you, using the rule-of-thirds to place the important portions of the image within the frame. Within the Crop tool you can also choose an aspect ratio for your crop—custom, 16:9, 8:10, 5:7, and so on. Select a ratio and the image will be cropped accordingly.

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The Crop control not only lets you crop your images, but also straighten them.

Making adjustments

Photos’ Adjustments tool is one of its most intriguing features and provides some insight into how its iOS cousin handles the job. The idea behind it is that many people don’t want to spend time tweaking their images. They’d prefer to click Enhance and when presented with the results—whether great or garish—accept them as all that can be managed. Intuitive though Exposure, Contrast, Saturation, and Definition sliders may seem to some of us, they’re confounding to many casual photographers. Photos’ designers set out to simplify the process while bringing greater intelligence to the app’s editing tools.

When you click on Adjustments (which Apple terms “Smart Adjustments”) you see three entries—Light, Color, and Black & White—that are controlled using “smart sliders.” To make an adjustment in this view, just click somewhere in the thumbnail image below one of these entries and drag to the left or right. For example, if your image is too dark, click in the Light tool area and then drag right or left to brighten or darken your image.

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Photos' Adjustments tools are simple yet powerful.

This addresses your need to make a dark image brighter. But it’s doing far more than just adjusting the image’s exposure. As you drag to the right or left, a variety of factors change including exposure, highlights, shadows, brightness, contrast, and black point (and probably several other things lurking under the surface). And not always in a similar direction. Dragging to the right may increase the image’s exposure but decrease its highlights, for instance. Photos is calculating the best look for the overall image rather than just dumbly making it brighter or darker.

You might use these controls this way: A mistake the unwary often make is shooting a picture of their nearest and dearest against a bright background—an unclouded mid-day sky is a common problem. Invariably, Rosco is dark and the background far brighter. If you did nothing but crank up the exposure you’d better expose your boyfriend, but the background would also brighten to the point where it entirely overwhelms the image. But try editing it with the Light control. Drag its smart slider to the right and Rosco becomes brighter but the background stays as it is or darkens, thus leaving you with the kind of image you could share with your mother versus one that shows him in a poor light. You can do this same kind of thing with the Color and Black & White controls.

photos add options

Even finer adjustments can be made via the Add menu.

But this can be just a starting point (or you can ignore it altogether). Click on the downward pointing triangle next to each control and you’ll see a series of other controls—the Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Brightness, Contrast, and Black Point controls I mentioned earlier. You can adjust each of these individually using their sliders or by clicking in the appropriate field and entering numeric values. So, if the global Light control gets you close, but not quite there, you can dive down a level and tweak as necessary.

And if that’s not enough control for you, click the Add button in the edit area and you find such additional options as Histogram, Sharpen, Definition, Noise Reduction, Vignette, White Balance, and Levels. Adobe Photoshop (or even Lightroom) it may not be, but if you find iPhoto’s editing controls a little underwhelming, you should be far happier with what Photos offers.

About the cloud

When Photos was first announced a number of people fell into a panic. “Apple can’t force me to keep my images in the cloud!” they cried. And they’re correct. Apple can’t force you to keep your images in the cloud, nor will it attempt to. Using iCloud storage is entirely optional. If you want to only store your images locally and not have them beamed into the cloud, you can. All you need do is ensure that the iCloud Photo Library option is unchecked in the iCloud preference within Photos. Or, if you want your images both in the cloud and on your Mac, enable the Download Original To This Mac option, also within Photos’ iCloud preference.

This latter option has advantages. When you edit an image or movie within Photos for OS X or in the updated version of Photos that will ship with iOS 8.2, those edits are automatically synced with all your devices and your account. For instance, if I convert one of my beach landscape images to black and white for a more dramatic effect, that version will appear on all the devices linked with my iCloud Photos Library. (And if I revert an image, that change will also be populated to my other devices.)

photos icloud options

iCloud storage is not required.

And you don’t lose anything in transit. Images are stored in their original format and resolution—including raw images. And speaking of raw images, it’s important to note that if you import a lot of large raw images and movies into Photos and then choose to store them in the cloud, you may be looking at purchasing additional iCloud storage. When you enable the iCloud Photo Library option, Photos will estimate how much iCloud storage you’ll need to store your current library in the cloud and provide a way for you to purchase more storage if that library is larger than your available iCloud storage.

You’re given 5GB of free iCloud storage when you sign up for an account, but if you need more storage you’ll have to pay for it—$0.99 a month for 20GB of total storage, $3.99 a month for 200GB, $9.99 a month for 500GB, and $19.99 a month for 1TB of storage. Again, iCloud storage is optional. You can continue to store your images on your Mac as you always have.

Project enhancements

Photos also spruces up iPhoto and Aperture’s projects. The book creation tools are now more streamlined—hiding the layout options until you need them, for example—and adding a new Square book format (20 pages in an 8 x 8 inch format for $24.99 and a 20 page 10 x 10 inch book for $39.99 with additional pages priced at $0.79 and $0.99 respectively). Compared to iPhoto, Photos in its current incarnation has lost some of the previous book themes but added a couple of new ones including Bento Box and Travelogue. Additional themes can be downloaded as they become available.

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